I have not read any of the other novels in the Culture suite and so initially knew less than nothing about the background. Starting my read it worried me, usually I begin with the first book in any series I’m attempting, but I was told this could stand on it’s own, and so it did.
Written to unfold layer by layer of the life of Special Circumstances agent Zakalwe while at the same time exposing the way the civilisation known as the Culture uses people and whole civilisations as part of their game of Rebuilding the Universe to Fit Our Standards it made me think of nations pursuing interventionist policies of different flavours, like the late USSR or the present-day US, but also of colonialist France, not to mention the British Empire.
The writing – or perhaps that should be the editing? – might work against this book, as it is told in two time frames, alternating with each chapter; one of them working backwards in time, one seemingly tracking the present. Also, in the middle of the “present” time line point of view suddenly changes, without any warning. Both of these can be perceived to be frustrating. But to me it was one of the things conspiring for this to be a pleasurable reading experience.
Shockingly revealing as (one of) the end(ings) was I personally feel that it is those greater questions asked that lingers with me, after I closed the book. Questions linked with the colonial/post colonial discussion (among others who has the right to intervene, and when) but also touching issues as ethics and morality.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoy thinking about such topics.